There is a difficult moment in the U.S. documentary Swim Team in which a mother asks her teenage son if he understands that he is different from the other kids at school. His condition, she explains, is called autism. But Robert Justino, a champion swimmer and captain of his high-school team, shrugs off the info with an "I can handle it." Apparently, he does not experience his life as unusual or different.
What does it feel like to be autistic? It's a question raised by several films in ReelAbilities, a small festival of documentaries, features and shorts by or about the disabled. The second-annual Toronto festival, the first international edition of a U.S. multicity effort launched in 2007, includes films about a blind dancer and a deaf football team – as well as several about the experiences of people on the autism spectrum.
These introduce viewers to Michael McQuay, a teen who says that when he swims he feels normal. And to Adam Wolfond, a 13-year-old boy who cannot speak but writes on his tablet that words are things so forceful they feel like slaps in the face to him. And to Judy Endow, an artist who paints the riot of colour that she sees. Documentary film seems like an ideal place to meet them; on the one hand, its journalistic aspect can give viewers background information about their conditions; on the other, its cinematic aspect can perhaps attempt to capture the sensory experiences particular to autism.
Or at least, one film at ReelAbilities does make that attempt explicitly; Spectrum: A Story of the Mind is a half-hour U.S. doc about the sensory experiences associated with autism. It begins with an interview with autism spokesperson and animal behaviourist Temple Grandin, who argues that the most critical area of autism research is sensory perception. The film, by Jill Jones and Brent Yontz, then explores that point, using both animation and live effects to reproduce the visual overload, auditory sensitivity or synesthesia that its subjects report.
Communicating through a keyboard, Tito Mukhopadhyay describes sensory overload producing visual chaos, a sea of shapes and colours in which it can be difficult to identify any familiar object – as the film itself produces a riot of coloured marbles and discs of lights on screen.
Mukhopadhyay also writes poems about how he sees the world; several of the subjects of these films reveal remarkable insight into the nature of their disability. Adam's Bar Mitzvah is a 14-minute film by Toronto disability researcher Estée Klar and her son Adam, who is non-verbal.
Adam speaks through a computer tablet and the film depicts his unusual preparation for the traditional speech that accompanies the Torah reading during the Jewish coming-of-age ritual. The film's text is taken almost entirely from that essay; it is a remarkable plea for understanding in which this boy on the cusp of manhood fashions his speechless self into a delicate metaphor for Moses's communication with God.
It is at moments like this that autism can seem like some kind of gift. Spectrum also introduces viewers to Endow, who reproduces her visual experiences in paint, creating riotously colourful canvases that mimic the pixelated images and refracted light that characterize her visual world. And then there's Nick Walker, a martial-arts teacher who has turned his practice of aikido into a kind of dance, reflecting his fascination with the spiral of movement that emerges from the fight.
In these last two cases, autism emerges as a gateway to an altered state, the path to sensory experiences that have their own particular meaning and beauty. Endow explains that she can see humidity in the air all the time, perceiving the whole world the way the rest of us might experience a misty morning on a lake. Her paintings suggest she enjoys a position of significant sensory advantage over the rest of us.
But the notion that autism is potentially a privileged state is heavily countered by Swim Team, a feature doc by Lara Stolman that charts the progress of the Jersey Hammerheads team founded by Maria and Michael McQuay.
The McQuays live in New Jersey, the U.S. state with the country's highest rate of autism, in the suburb of Perth Amboy, where one boy in 26 is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. They started teaching their autistic son Michael Jr. to swim for safety reasons, found that he thrived in water and developed the team to provide more recreational opportunities for him and his peers.
It's an inspirational tale: Over the course of a swimming season, the young McQuay builds the confidence in the pool that will eventually help get him a summer job working with animals, while the hard-working Justino swims his way to the captaincy of his high-school team and Kelvin Truong, who also suffers from Tourette syndrome, finds that swimming calms his tics.
The youths' parents are justifiably proud and see the way physical achievement helps their sons outside the pool – but nobody here is under any illusion that the future will be easy for young men who speak awkwardly, have difficulties with social connections and read well below grade level.
Truong's mother shows us around her house, where her son regularly punches holes in the walls. The McQuays are applying for guardianship of Michael as he turns 18, worried he could not possibly be counted on to make adult decisions. And Justino's mother figures that as her son reaches adulthood it's really time that he knew about autism and understood why he is different.
At ReelAbilities, the nature of that difference is up to the viewer to decide.
The ReelAbilities Film Festival runs May 10-18 at various venues in Toronto (toronto.reelabilities.org).